It was April 9, 2004, Good Friday, when Marine Lance Cpl. Chance R. Phelps was killed during combat operations in Al Anbar Province, Iraq.
At 19, Phelps had been out of boot camp less than a year when he was killed in action. He enlisted in the Marine Corps just 10 days after high school graduation.
“He was 17, so I had to sign for him,” said his mother, Gretchen Mack. “But that’s what he wanted to do.”
Her suffering still evident 10 years later, Mack paused.
“We were behind him 100 percent,” she added.
Tucked along the west wall of the Montezuma County Fairgrounds on Saturday, April 26, past the oldest rifle believed to be on display at the Cortez Gun and Sportsman Show, Mack was selling $50 raffle tickets for a chance to win a brand-new Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The proceeds benefited the Chance Phelps Foundation.
“It’s a way to honor our son’s memory,” said Mack, who established the foundation in 2006.
An avid hunter and fisherman, Phelps lives on through the foundation, which provides an oasis to returning veterans and their families at a guest ranch near Dubois, Wyo. There, they enjoy horseback riding, hiking, fly-fishing and hunting, to name a few, all free of charge.
“We close the ranch down, and invite as many military families as possible,” said Mack. “There’s no costs to them whatsoever.”
Open to all military branches, Mack said she hopes the weekly retreats offer veterans suffering from mental anguish a time to refocus their life. She said Phelps’ father, a Vietnam-era combat soldier, continues to suffer from mental war wounds, and if she can help just one returning veteran, then she’s accomplished her task.
“Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day,” Mack said. “That’s almost one an hour. One is too many.”
“These guys are just falling through the cracks,” she described. “They protected us and defended our country. We’re just doing our part. That’s our job.”
Phelps story came to life in a 2009 HBO film starring Kevin Bacon, Taking Chance. The movie was based on Lt. Col. M.R. Strobl’s trip report, one he was required to log during a weeklong military transport mission to return Phelps’ home.
“It was a basic report that turned out to mean so much more to him,” Mack explained. “He basically poured his guts out.”
After the journey, Strobl recalled that Phelps was wearing his Saint Christopher medal when he was killed. Eight days later, he handed the medallion to Phelps’ mother.
“I didn’t know Chance before he died,” Strobl would later write. “Today, I miss him.”
After the story first went viral, Hollywood approached.
“We didn’t want to do the movie,” Mack said. “We just wanted our son back.”
The family eventually agreed to the film with certain stipulations, including the story remained apolitical and it honored their son in a positive fashion. Mack said she’s only been able to view the movie once, in its entirety.
“It’s a great movie,” she said. “They did a good job.”
Strobl’s journal and subsequent film also helped to alter governmental policy. Mack described it as a historical change in military protocol that finally allowed families to attend ceremonies at Dover Air Force Base when flag-draped caskets returned home.
“The greatest thing now is Dover has a great chapel and a place for families to stay, said Mack. “That’s pretty cool.”
In closing, Mack invited any area veteran wishing to arrange a ranch getaway to visit chancephelps.org for details.